"Disaster" and Construal Level Theory
By Bryan Caplan
Was the French Revolution a disaster? Well, it did send Europe into 26 years of horrific bloodshed and misery. Standard estimates put the body count of the Napoleonic era alone in the vicinity of 5 million victims. Yet even well-informed people will often furrow their brows and muse that it was, on the whole, a good thing. Or at least too complex to confidently condemn. Ask people about the Russian Revolution, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the partition of India, or the decolonization movement, and you’ll get similarly mixed-to-positive reactions.
You might think these non-condemnations reflect a healthy aversion to hyperbole. Strangely, though, it is pretty easy to get people – even well-informed people – to name clear-cut “disasters.” Just read last year’s top five headlines aloud. Almost everyone will eagerly identify as least one of these headlines as a “full-blown disaster.” This is true even though the body count of the putative “disaster” is usually in the hundreds, not millions.
Why the difference? You can’t cite generic pessimism; that would lead people to overreact to both big past events and small recent events.
It’s tempting to blame left-wing bias, but it’s very hard to see why modern leftists would want to downplay the misdeeds of Napoleon or the House of Saud.
So what’s going on? The best explanation I know of is what psychologists call construal level theory, also known as “near-far effects.” Recent bad events don’t just feel worse than distant bad events; they feel more avoidable – and therefore more blameworthy. The “correct” reaction to recent bad events feels clear-cut; the “correct” reaction to distant bad events, in contrast, feels debatable. So debatable, in fact, that seemingly bad events could easily be blessings in disguise.
Consider people’s reactions to life extension. Is it bad if a healthy 82-year-old suddenly drops dead? Of course. But what if doctors figure out how to give everyone 120 years of healthy life? Suddenly people start fretting, “It is death that gives life meaning,” and other macabre absurdities. Indeed, when you ask people to imagine a world of universal immortality, many people go full Dada: “Perhaps the universe would be better off without mankind anyway.”
So which view is right – near or far? Frankly, they both seem mad: Humans make molehills out of mountains and mountains out of molehills. In near-mode, we angrily rush to judgment. In far-mode, we calmly entertain the absurd. Numeracy could save us. But the greatest disaster of all is that numeracy only helps those who help themselves.